It was interesting when I started researching this post how little writing there is on this subject. I tried looking up “How to work with older workers” in Google, and most of the results were referencing “How to manage someone older than you”. That might be a topic for another day.
For now, what I want to talk about is how to work with someone older than you. What I mean by that is someone who is either a coworker or someone from another company that you need to work with. The power dynamic with these people can be murky – they’re not directly your boss, but sometimes you can feel the weight of their experience pressing down on you. In my case, I work as a consultant with third-party companies, and often it can feel like I’m providing advice to someone who is contemporary with my dad. And I’m sure most people would feel funny telling their dad what to do.
This also has another element when you are a woman. Like it or not, some men are from the old school, and they’re not used to having female colleagues. I want to be clear here that I don’t think all older people are biased against younger workers. A lot of them love working with younger people because they can be quite driven and offer a unique perspective. I think a lot of the time this has to do with shifting attitudes on both sides. You need to have the confidence to speak to someone older than you with authority and gain their respect. They need to be able to give you time and listen.
I still get nervous whenever I meet the contact for a new project. For the most part, people are wonderful and I’m super lucky with my role that I get to meet a lot of fantastic professionals. I just get nervous because I want these people to respect me and ultimately I want them to like me! With that in mind, see some tips below that have worked for me.
Be yourself and know your value
When I first enter a workshop with someone older than me, I just do my best to be myself. My personal brand is someone who is open and friendly, though I probably fall on the more serious side of the equation. Other people are extroverted and funny in the workplace. If you try and change who you are, it comes across as fake and manipulative. Not the best way to gain respect and trust.
That’s not to say that you might consider toning down things that are generational. I have an annoying habit of saying ‘Real?’ whenever someone says something that surprises me. A habit I am desperately trying to break. But at the same time, pretending you’re 40 with 3 kids and a mortgage is just going to make you look like an idiot. Don’t try and build a connection with someone on false pretenses.
I’d also say here – know your value! There’s a reason you have your job. You’re good at it! You also have a unique perspective to offer by being a younger person. In my role specifically, I have a great insight to offer in the life of the customer service agent because I used to be one not too long ago. I can help build for the best agent experience because I know exactly what they need to succeed. Think about what your unique insight is and don’t hesitate to show up with it time and time again.
Don’t pretend to know things you don’t
You won’t get ahead if you pretend to know something and then the person calls you out on it. I have a lot more respect for someone who can put their hand up and say “I don’t know” than someone who tries to bullshit their way through a meeting. You don’t look smart if you have an answer to every question when half the answers are wrong.
My favourite ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card is to use the phrase “Let me check on that and get back to you.” They will be a whole lot more impressed when you send them a follow up email the next day with the information they asked for versus an under-cooked answer in the middle of a meeting. Realise that you aren’t expected to be perfect or all-knowing. If someone expects that, then you need to reset those expectations with them and let them know that you’re a human too.
Be as prepared as possible
This feeds somewhat into the point above. As much as you don’t have to know everything, I do recommend that ahead of presentations or before delivering a piece of work that you do everything you can to prepare. Not only will this earn you respect for having all your ducks in a row, but it will also give you an air of confidence with whatever it is that you’re doing.
Let your work speak for itself
A lot of the time, older workers can have certain preconceptions about the kind of workers young people are. They expect them to be lazy or entitled, and expect the work you deliver to reflect that.
I take my job very seriously. I put as much effort as possible into delivering a good solution for my customers. Even if they don’t respect me on day one of meeting me, they will by the end of the project. It’s hard as hell to argue with something that was delivered with exactly their requirements and to an excellent standard.
Be professional – not sulky
This point really speaks to your attitude around the person with the age gap. I would say that most people don’t start out sulky, but it can be hard not to fall into that when someone isn’t treating you with the respect you deserve and that you are showing them. If you’re sulky, often it can be used as ammunition for that person to prove their point.
Be sulky at home! Call your friends or your mentor and have the biggest whinge about that person. But at work, always show them professional courtesy and respect. It’s hard to be unpleasant to someone who is treating you well. And even if they don’t change their behaviour, at least everyone will know that they’re the agitator – not you.
Respect their experience
Keep in mind that you may have only been in a particular industry a short amount of time. Regardless, the person older than you has years of experience and it would honestly be silly for you not to take advantage of it. Ask questions. Value their opinion. I find that people love being asked questions. It makes them feel good to help you, and they will have ideas that you could never have thought of.
In my experience older and younger workers collaborating can lead to outstanding results. Approach this with the right attitude and you can both soar. Then go visit your dad and give him a hug.
We’d love to hear about your own thoughts and experiences if you’d like to comment down below! You can also join our LinkedIn group for Career Queens to connect and network with other like-minded women.